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Ed Coan is widely recognized as the greatest powerlifter of all time. He has set more than 71 world records in powerlifting. Ed's best single-ply lifts are a squat of 1,019 pounds, bench press of 584, and deadlift of 901, for a total of 2,504 pounds. His 901 deadlift was at a bodyweight of 220. Ed became the lightest person in history to cross the 2,400 pound total barrier.
Note from Tim Ferriss: This profile is a bit different from the rest. Ed is a childhood hero of mine and one of the best lifters the world has ever seen. I couldn't resist asking a bunch of training-specific questions, in addition to this book's tried-and-true set of questions toward the end.
Tim Ferriss (TF): Were you always good in sports?
Ed Coan (EC): When I was a little kid, I had no hand-eye coordination. I had to to go Illinois Institute of Technology at night and wear something like horse blinders because I couldn't even bounce a ball. I was really little. My freshman year in high school, I was 4'11" and 98 pounds, so I never went out for baseball and never went out for foot. I was scared. Eventually, I wrestled, because there was a 98-pound class. That's when I found lifting.
I could dive into lifting by myself. It was only me and the weights. I'd sit in the basement at midnight on these ad hoc machines with little weights, going nuts for hours because no one was watching me. It was just me.
TF: Were there any counterintuitive or particularly surprising findings that you found when looking at your notes from 28 years of training?
EC: At the time I wrote the notes down, no. But when I look back at them, yes. The biggest surprise was that I took my time and made a little, tiny bit of progress four or five times a year. When you make a little progress four times a year over 28 years, you're going to be pretty good at what you do. I never thought, "Oh, I have to lift X amount of weight or accomplish Y." I just thought, "I'm going to get better, and this is what I have to do to get better. "These are my weaknesses; let me correct my weaknesses."
TF: What are some of the most common novice mistakes you see in lifting?
EC: They don't take their time. They don't look at the long term goals, the big picture. I'll ask kids an old question that every old guy asks: "Where do you want to be in five years? Where do you see yourself?" If I apply that question to lifting, a lot of people don't get it. They're only thinking, "What am I going to do within six months?" They don't realize that if you make the whole body strong in every aspect that you possibly can over a period of just three years, you've created an impenetrable machine that won't get hurt, that won't break down, that you can have for the rest of your life because you followed what you're supposed to at the beginning.
They don't take the time to to dot their i's and cross their t's. By analogy, they can write the best paper in the world and turn it in to the teacher, but based on grammar, they're going to get a D. They don't take the time to do the little things: the assistance work, extra technique work, proper diet, prehab (injury prevention) exercises, etc.
I was fortunate because I was introverted - I realized what all of my weaknesses were. I only did two contests a year because I like to get better and have all that time to work on my weaknesses. So, for instance, my strength is my back and my hips. During my long off-season (roughly December to mid-June), I would do a high-bar Olympic close stance squat. Instead of regular deadlifts, I would do deadlifts with no belt and off of a deficit (an elevated platform) or use stiff-legs off of a deficit.
For the bench press, I would ask myself, "How can I make this harder so it will help with my lockout?" I'd then bench with my feet up and do more close-grip and incline benches, things like that.
What do I know will help me not only get (generally) strong but also transfer over to the main lifts? It doesn't matter if you have a pretty peak on your biceps if it doesn't do anything.
TF: When is it okay to max out with a lift?
EC: Twice a year at meets.
Usually, when people max out in a gym, they're pretty insecure and not confident about what their end results are going to be. Years ago, I went to Russia with Fred Hatfield and a few other people. This is before perestroika, and the USSR was incredibly powerful. I was in one of their old gyms, something you might see in a Rocky movie. I talked with the guys about training and they said, "You only have so many max attempts in your body over your lifetime. Why waste them in the gym?" I tend to agree with that.
TF: Are there any particular exercises that you think are neglected or that more people should incorporate?
EC: Usually it's the hard ones like sets of pause squats. Guys can't use as much weight, it's harder, and a lot of the time they don't do them. The only way to get out of the bottom once you stop is for your whole body to push and sync at the right time. You can't have bad technique or you fall forward right away. I don't pause to a box . . . I taught myself how to stay tight with the barbell.
TF: What are the most common mistakes you see in a squat?
EC: People don't focus on the body as a whole when they squat. Everyone thinks you just use your legs. They think, "You don't want to hurt your back, so don't use your back." But you need an equal amount of push going down through the floor, which is your legs, and push going up, which is your back driving against the bar. This dual action is what allows your hips to activate and move forward like a hinge on a door. If one of those is not working, you fall forward. So I concentrate on hitting the hole, driving with my legs and driving straight up with my back into the bar. That makes the hips react. It's the same principle in the deadlift.
TF: Are there any particular prehab exercises that you like or dislike?
EC: Layne Norton has suffered hip and back injuries over the last four years, and he came back. He has a tutorial of hip exercises on his Instagram account (@biolayne) that really helped him. I tried them, and they work phenomenally well.
I also do some Kelly Starrett stretching with bands to open things up, and I use a lacrosse ball to work on the pecs, rhomboids, etc.
For the pecs, for instance, you stand at the side of a door frame, place the lacrosse ball directly on the pec tendon, then lean against the wall. If you're working on your right pec, you'd stand in front of the left side of a door frame, and your right arm would be straight out in front of you, inside the door frame, the right pec pressing the ball into the wall. The key is that you don't move the ball. Instead, you move your straight arm up and down while pushing against the ball, and you'll feel that sucker roll over the tendon. You're causing your own pain, which is more tolerable.
TF: During your competitive career, did you find anything unusual to help with recovery?
EC: Four times a week I received chiropractic care from a friend of Dr. Bob Goldman. Every time I went to see him, he worked on me from my feet up. Now you see a lot of people like Chris Duffin and Kelly Starrett rolling out the bottoms of their feet and doing ankle prep. At the time, we used something that looked like an abacus. Right after using it, I'd walk around and, all of a sudden, my knees didn't hurt and my back was tight. These days, I use a lacrosse ball.
TF: I've heard you never missed lifts in training, which is rare. Where did you learn that approach?
EC: I'm pretty sure it was on my own. I used to read Powerlifting USA when I was younger, but my routine was a basic linear periodization with a lot of thought put into picking assistance exercises. So here's what I would do: If I had a 12-week training cycle, I would start from week 12 - sets, reps, weights - and work my way back(wards) all the way to week one. I would have every set, every rep, and ever weight for every single exercise predetermined. I didn't care if it was a leg curl or a pause squat or shoulder press or bent row; whatever it was, my weight, sets, and reps were all figured out for the entire training cycle.
Then I would stop and I would look at that routine, all written in pencil, of course. I would ask myself, "Okay, is every single thing here doable?" If you have to think about it, change it. Make it so that you know 100 percent everything is doable. When you start that routine, imagine how positive your mental outlook is. It's huge.
I was never depressed. I was never stressed. I never worried about "Can I do this next week?" I always knew I could.
TF: Looking back at your peak training, what did your weekly split look like during that period of time?
EC: Mondays would be squats and all other leg assistance. Tuesdays would be off. Wednesdays would be bench with chest assistance and a lot of triceps work. I would come in on Thursdays, after pre-fatiguing the triceps on Wednesday, and only hit shoulders (primary go-to exercise: seated behind neck press, working up to 400-plus pounds). I would deadlift on Friday (with light squats as a warmup), do all of my back work. Saturday would be a light bench day for recovery using wide-grip bench, flyes, etc., with occasional smaller exercises like light curls and grip work. Sundays were off.
TF: If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
EC: "BE NICE!"
As angry and "focused" as I was as a younger man, I found that those two words made my life much easier. I used to have a scowl on my face if anything differed from what I believed in any way, shape, or form. I don't know if this was because it was hard for me - as such an introvert - to express things outwardly, or if I was just a jerk. I don't think I was a jerk because I never acted on much.
Then, one day, there was this idiot in the gym who really, really used to get under my skin.
I took a deep breath, let it go, walked up, and said, "Hey, how are you doing? You look great. Congratulations on finishing school." Suddenly, I thought, "Holy Crap! This is amazing!" It was like I'd set myself free. it was gone. So even now, I just try to relax (with something like) "Hey, how are you doing? Nice to see you." If I really don't like something, or if something doesn't agree with me, I just walk away or talk to someone more positive.
I see this a lot with powerlifters Mark Bell and Stan Efferding. They don't let anybody or anything get to them. It's like water off a duck's back.
TF: When you feel overwhelmed of unfocused, what do you do?
EC: When I travel and I'm on long plane rides, I'll go through my last two weeks: What I did, what I thought of, how I can improve it, and what I'm going to do so I don't make mistakes. Stan Efferding actually taught me how to do that by writing lists (and it might only take 30 minutes) . . . When I put it on paper, it takes the emotion out and makes it easier to follow.
For instance, it's usually my procrastination and fear that have stopped me from doing things. I tend to think of things as a big whole and get overwhelmed. If I break it down, put it down on paper, then look at it a half hour later, all of those smaller things don't seem like a big deal. When I write it down on paper, it looks so much easier, because the fear in my mind is externalized, I can look at it and realize that it's not so scary.
TF: In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
EC: I have been doing Jeet Kune Do counter-violence training for some years since I stopped competing in powerlifting, and I love it. That would be on the short list. I had to teach myself how to move again, because I wanted to be an athlete and not a one-dimensional gorilla.
TF: What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
EC: It's a picture of my parents that I had framed. I've never heard my mom or dad badmouth anybody. The picture makes me think about how I should treat everyone I love.
The picture was taken only a few years ago, and it's my mom and dad together, next to each other - an upper torso shot. I'd never really seen them showing that much affection. My whole life, I never really saw it because of the five kids. and now the grandkids. They hadn't really had a chance to show it. They're both around 87 years old now, and they've had their health problems, but they're still kicking. They love life, they love their kids and grandkids, and it keeps them going.
I think what they instilled in my without me even knowing it was the ability to observe. Still today, I think that's one of the things I'm really good at: just sitting back and observing. I've never been one to try to be the life of the party or to be too loud. I usually just sit back and observe with a smirk on my face. I don't think you realize how much your parents have given you until you get older and can reflect on it.
TF: What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
EC: I love my routine and when nothing upsets my routine. My dad used to tell me, "I know never to die and have my wake or funeral on a lifting day, because I know you won't be there."
I've also taken a nap every day since I was a kid. I still try not to miss it. Usually it's 45 minutes to an hour and ideally around 3:30 or 4 p.m.
TF: What is the best purchase you've made in recent memory?
Not too long ago, right after a surgery, the pulmonary doctor and anesthesiologist came in my room, and it was like the TV show Intervention. I said, "What's up, guys? You're not smiling." They said, "We have to talk. Your surgery took a little longer than usual because of the density of your bone and the size of your muscles and tendons."
Now, that's fine with me. I'm happy. Then they said, "The hardest part of your whole surgery was keeping you breathing." Subsequently, I went in for a sleep study. They figured out that when I fall asleep on my side, I stop breathing eight times a minute. When I fall asleep on my back, I stop breathing 24 times a minute.
So I got a CPAP machine, and it changed my life. It's helped me improve my focus, overcome negative thoughts akin to depression, and more. Your blood pressure comes down, your blood work starts changing, everything starts to happen because of it, I guarantee I'd been dealing with sleep problems my entire life. I just didn't realize it.
TF: What are bad recommendation you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
EC: "The newest training ideas are the best!" Wrong. Tried-and-true basics lay the foundation for everything we do in and out of the gym.
TF: I hope this doesn't sound offensive, but why do you spell your name "Eddy"? It's an unusual spelling.
EC: The reason I don't spell it E-D-D-I-E is because of the first guest lifting appearance I ever did. I did a deadlift exhibition when I was young in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was on St. Patrick's Day of all days, and I already look like a freaking leprechaun. I pulled a deadlift and, after, some lady came up to me with Bill Pearl's book Keys to the Inner Universe, which is a gigantic book, and she said, "Would you sign this for me? I think you're going to be famous some day in powerlifting." I said, "Sure," but my hand was still shaking from the adrenaline of having just lifted. I still had my belt on and chalk on my hands. So I went to sign it and out came E-D-D-Y. I thought to myself, "You know what? I have to sign my name E-D-D-Y for the rest of my life so I don't negate the signature that I did for this lady."